Mercurial Angela Rayner fails to shine while deputising for Starmer

Labour leader may have to work hard to suitably accommodate deputy in government after next election

As British prime minster Rishi Sunak was en route to Japan for a G7 meeting, responsibility for his weekly question time (PMQs) on Wednesday in the House of Commons fell to his new deputy Oliver Dowden. As it was DPMQs, he faced off against Angela Rayner, Labour’s acerbic deputy leader and one of the most scrutinised women in British politics.

Rayner is what most of the Conservative government’s privileged front bench is not – unashamedly and unmistakably working class. She regularly refers to her upbringing in poverty near Manchester and how she became pregnant at 16. Her earthy background contrasted sharply with that of Sunak’s previous deputy prime minister, the Oxford and Cambridge graduate Dominic Raab, who quit last month after he was found to have bullied civil servants.

Despite their differences they shared a curious dynamic – wry and tense yet almost flirtatious in their encounters. Raab was once filmed winking at her across the dispatch box in the House of Commons.

Rayner has often been the subject of forms of sexualised goading from certain Tories. Last year unnamed government MPs told reporters that she had told them she tried to distract Boris Johnson in the Commons by crossing and uncrossing her legs, Basic Instinct-style in his line of vision. She furiously denied the reports, which were widely panned as misogynistic.


Since that furore, Conservatives have had to be more careful in how they criticise Rayner, whom they deride as being to the left of Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.

Dowden, whose state-school background is more plain than some of his colleagues, is also a different kind of a foil for her than Raab.

To cheers from the Labour benches, Rayner opened question time on Wednesday by caustically welcoming “yet another deputy prime minister” to his maiden DPMQ appearance. “Maybe the third time is a charm,” she quipped, referring to the high turnover of government deputy leaders amid the chaos of recent years. “I am pleased to note the prime minister has a working class friend, finally.”

Yet her opponent was ready. Rayner is not seen as close to Starmer and sits outside his inner circle of confidantes. Dowden wryly retorted that he was surprised he wasn’t being questioned by the Labour leader’s “choice for next deputy prime minister”, which he said was not Rayner but Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats with which Labour may have to do a deal after the next election.

“We all know what’s going on with [Rayner] and her leader. It’s all lovey-dovey on the surface. They turn it on for the cameras, but as soon as they’re off it’s a different story – they are at each other’s throats. They are the Phil and Holly of British politics,” said Dowden, referring to the much reported falling out between Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby, presenters of ITV’s This Morning programme.

The Tory backbenches erupted.

This seemed to unsettle the normally forthright Rayner, who became lost in a fog of long, meandering statements that took too long to settle upon a question, by which time she was being drowned out by impatient Tory jeers.

She fell back on familiar attack lines such as NHS waiting lists and child poverty, but never appeared to regain her composure. At one point, she could be seen from the press gallery, hands shaking, as she shuffled between her papers looking for her next line.

Several high profile women on Labour’s front bench, such as shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, are likely to have strong claims for some of the highest government offices in the UK after the next election. Yet if Starmer does end up deposing Sunak as prime minister perhaps his biggest quandary will be how to fit in his occasionally formidable, somewhat distant, yet thoroughly mercurial deputy Rayner.